By Francois Murphy
VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria on Wednesday played down a dispute with Italy over possible controls at their shared border, saying Rome had misunderstood its intentions when it spelled out military preparations for any future influx of migrants.
Rome reacted furiously on Tuesday to Austrian Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil’s comment that he expected controls at the border with Italy to be introduced “very soon”.
His remarks were part of a report in Austria’s top-selling tabloid, confirmed by an official in his ministry, that 750 troops were ready to be deployed and four armored vehicles had been sent to the province that includes the Brenner Pass, a gateway for Italy to important trading partners such as Germany.
Italy summoned Austria’s ambassador to Rome over Doskozil’s comments. But Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern struck a conciliatory note on Wednesday, praising cooperation with Italy, which is dealing with a surge in the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Africa.
“One must clear up misunderstandings like the ones that have evidently arisen with Italy,” Kern told a joint news conference with Doskozil. Austria is preparing to introduce controls at Brenner if there is a surge in migrant arrivals there, but there is no need to at present, he said.
“We are not deploying tanks at Brenner and I can emphasize again that cooperation with Italy is really good,” Kern said, adding that there was no indication Italy had lost control of the situation on its southern flank.
Italy has appealed to other European countries for help in dealing with the influx of people making the perilous sea crossing from North Africa, many of them fleeing war and poverty in their home countries.
More than 85,000 refugees and other migrants have arrived in Italy by that route so far this year, making it the main point of entry into Europe.
Austria has said for more than a year that it will introduce border controls at Brenner if needed to prevent a wave of arrivals like that seen in 2015, during which it took in more than 1 percent of its population in asylum seekers, who came mainly through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans.
Europe’s migration crisis in 2015 lifted support in Austria for the far-right Freedom Party. With a parliamentary election due in October and immigration likely to remain a central issue, all three leading parties, including Kern and Doskozil’s Social Democrats, are underlining the importance of border security.
“We must prepare for a possible worsening of the situation (in Italy),” Kern and Doskozil said in a statement. “One thing is clear: there cannot be a repeat of a situation like the one in 2015.”
(Editing by Toby Chopra)